The Turn Of The Screw – February 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Directed by Lindsay Posner

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th February 2013

This story has two main directions, the psychological and the supernatural; this production took the supernatural path and did it reasonably well. The effects were good, ranging from a face appearing at the window in a sudden flash of light and papers flicked off a desk to chalk writing by itself on the blackboard and Quint joining the Governess in bed. There was a fair amount of tension, although it wasn’t maintained for the whole performance; I certainly won’t be losing any sleep.

It took a while to set up the story. The opening scene was set in Sackville’s office, where he was interviewing a young woman for the post of governess to his deceased sister’s two children. He was a strange man; he clearly liked his pleasures, and having travelled in the East he was also able to introduce ideas such as people having a predetermined destiny and the return of a soul. Sometimes he seemed to be making a pass at the woman and at others he wasn’t interested – most peculiar. The Governess came across as a bit nervy, but of the two I’d have said Sackville was the one to steer clear of.

At Bly, Mrs Grose (Gemma Jones) was the kindly, reliable sort, and there was just enough hesitation in her manner to indicate some unseen trouble. Flora was the first of the children we met; she was cute and bright with a fondness for creepy-crawlies but nothing out of the ordinary for that time and place, apart from her strange foreknowledge that her brother Miles would be arriving that day, a week before the end of term.

We never learned the full reason for Miles being expelled – it was couched in general terms – but the young man who arrived soon after Flora’s departure seemed perfectly normal, and with good manners to boot. He was a bit precocious, but that can happen with the privately-educated sons of the wealthy. The childrens’ behaviour did become stranger, and with the appearance of the ghosts it was evident that they were both under some kind of spell.

The interval came after the first appearances of Quint in the flashes of lightning from a sudden storm. The housekeeper recognised the Governess’s description of the man, and just as she was telling the Governess that he was dead, the children burst into the room, laughing. Creepy. (I admit to holding onto Steve’s arm a number of times during the performance – this was one of them.)

More appearances occurred in the second half, with the children clearly being affected by them and Mrs Grose, despite seeing nothing herself, evidently believing they were happening. The Governess’s religious fervour was starting to emerge, and her belief that the children had to be saved from evil at all costs was becoming as scary as the apparitions. With matters coming to a head, Flora was taken away by Mrs Grose, leaving the Governess to confront Miles in a last attempt to force him to turn from the dark side by confessing what had got him expelled from school. He wouldn’t do it, and with Quint leering at them through the window, the Governess had to take desperate measures to ‘save’ her charge.

The ending was less gripping than I would have expected, and from some of the comments I heard, others weren’t clear what had happened. I felt this adaptation hadn’t quite found the right balance; the supernatural stuff just isn’t as powerful on stage nowadays without creating a tense atmosphere, and that aspect was underwritten for me. There was too much normality, and the Governess in particular was a blank slate, making it hard to relate to her experiences. There were hints of her background, but not enough to make a difference, and the effects, while good, were not enough on their own to keep the tension going.

The set worked reasonably well. They used a circular stage with a revolve which had a wall across it, making it easier to change to different locations – the office, drawing-room, schoolroom, etc. In a curve round the back and above the stage were some windows and broken masonry, suggesting the old country house setting. The lake was created by a little jetty with a boat tied to it, backed by some tall grasses. The costumes looked appropriate for period and class, as far as I could tell.

Although the revolve usually helps with quick changes to the set, I found the changes this time were a little slower than I expected, and that made the production seem bitty, which contributed to the reduced tension. The performances were fine, but I probably wouldn’t see this adaptation again without good reason.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Portrait Of A Lady – August 2008

6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 28th August 2008

The set was a forward curve of arches, with ledges on the columns, and all in dark marble. Chairs and tables were brought on and moved around as needed, while the curved backdrop had different vistas projected onto it.

The performances were good. Although Finbar Lynch had trouble maintaining a consistent accent, he portrayed the menace of his character really well. Jean Marsh was only a tad better with her accent, but she did get some good lines, and the revelations at the end came from her character. All the other accents were fine, and Christopher Ravenscroft in particular livened things up in his one scene. The scenes themselves were sometimes bitty, and the scene changes could drag on a little. I wasn’t keen on the backward timeline for this particular story; knowing how it ends means I don’t get to enjoy the full emotional journey, and the later scenes from earlier times tend to be box-tickers, filling in the details to which we’ve had clues in the previous future scenes (gosh, it’s hard work explaining this so I can remember it).

The second half was definitely better than the first – both Steve and I felt the first half was a bit pedestrian – but then I found myself getting a bit lost with the time travel element. Mr Goodwood in particular suffered from this, as he turned up only occasionally and I lost track of when we’d seen him before, in the future. In fact, although I found the second half generally more interesting, I also felt it was more confusing with all the jumping around in time.

I didn’t know the story at all before today, so I’ve no idea how well it represented the original novel. My impression at the end is that Isabel Archer is a bright but not particularly shrewd young lady, whose main character flaw is a passion for independence. She’s determined to make up her own mind and make her own choices, which she then sticks to tenaciously, as they represent such an important part of her. She has the bad luck to fall in with a spider of a man, eager to lure a rich woman into his web, and with the wit to let her walk in of her own free choice. Mind you, I’m not sure from the alternatives on offer that she’d have been happy with any of her other suitors. Maybe Lord Warburton could have made it work, but she would probably have found the conventions of the English aristocracy too stifling. A heroine doomed to misery then, and we lucky people get to share bucketloads of it with her. Oh joy.

Still, the story was interesting in its own way, despite the method of telling it, and I was taken once again by how much James’s American characters are drawn to all things European, despite many of them considering the American way to be better. Admittedly, several of the American characters in this story are ex-pats who’ve lived in Europe for many years, often since childhood, so the pattern isn’t so obvious this time around. I did like the music between scenes, which is also part of Isabel’s first meeting with Madam Merle – it turns out Mme Merle’s an accomplished pianist, and it was her  playing that we heard. For the beginning of each scene, the characters held a tableau, emphasising the “portrait” aspect of the piece, and indeed I often felt while watching the first few scenes that I was looking at a setting for some formal portraits. The costumes looked fine to me, though the need for quick changes meant our heroine seemed to be wearing black more than was strictly necessary or helpful. As the story unfolds, though, there seem to be lots of reasons for full or partial mourning, so perhaps that explains it. Even so, I felt it lessened the impact of the change in her character that she was dressed so drably for most of the play.

So, not my favourite James adaptation, then, but still a good afternoon in the theatre.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Turn Of The Screw – March 2008

5/10

By Henry James, adapted by Ali Gorton

Directed by Ali Gorton

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th March 2008

I nearly gave this a 3/10 rating, as the first half was very weak. It picked up in the second half though, and so I felt that overall a 5/10 rating was just appropriate.

There were a number of problems with the production. The set was another portmanteau effort, which seemed too jumbled to give me any real sense of place most of the time. The scene down by the lake was good, with some of the furniture removed, and mist billowing out across the stage and auditorium, but otherwise I found the locations quite confusing. Added to this was the lighting, which was often dim. For good reason admittedly, but it still made it harder to see what was going on. The story was told in a strange sequence, with the last scene chronologically shown first, then a flashback to the governess being offered her post, then another flashback to when the two servants were alive, then a flash forward to the governess’s arrival at the house. Knowing the story reasonably well, I wasn’t too worried, but I did wonder how someone who didn’t know it would get on.

Apart from that, there were some odd effects, such as having one of the lights flash on and off rapidly. It was presumably meant to tell us something about the ghostly apparitions, but I certainly didn’t get anything from it. And the horrendous wig the previous governess was wearing was only scary in the humorous sense. But the biggest problem was in the delivery of the lines. Again, I knew the story fairly well, so I was able to get by, and perhaps a headset would have helped a bit, but unfortunately Honeysuckle Weeks showed a distinct lack of vocal prowess in this part. She gabbled a lot of her lines as if she were in a race. We had started fifteen minutes late, and I briefly wondered if they were hurrying to catch up the lost time, but it was just the pace they were playing it at. Her voice definitely needs to be developed if she’s going to do much on the stage. [18/9/11 Seen her several times since and she’s been fine – don’t know what went wrong tonight]

Despite that, she got across a good picture of a highly strung young woman of a romantic disposition, used to her own family, who gets caught up in the atmosphere of the first house she goes to work in. The possibility of the ghosts being entirely in her imagination is one that was new to Steve, though I’d come across it before in a TV adaptation, and it’s well presented here. Personally I think there’s a bit of both options going on. The two servants have left an emotional legacy which has been ignored up to now, and the sensitive governess picks up on this and takes it further than she has any right to, making serious misjudgements along the way. There were some scary moments – I held Steve’s arm for a while – and the death scene was well done, so the evening ended better than it had begun.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me